Heart of Empire — June 12, 2014, 12:41 pm

The Long Shadow of a Neocon

Reassessing a primary architect of Iraq and Afghanistan’s current misery
Zalmay Khalilzad ©© Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

Zalmay Khalilzad ©© Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

As jihadists everywhere celebrate their stunning victories in Mosul and Tikrit, as well as the abject retreat of the United States from Afghanistan, we can only hope that they accord due credit to a man who was indispensable to their success. Now an obscure businessman seeking crumbs from the table as an “international consultant,” Zalmay Khalilzad was in his day an imperial envoy sent by the United States to decree the fates of Afghanistan and Iraq. His decisions, most especially his selection of puppet overseers to administer the conquered lands, were uniformly disastrous, contributing in large degree to the catastrophes of today. To be sure, many others among the neocon clique and their liberal-democrat interventionist allies deserve a place on the jihadist honor roll of useful idiots, but few contributed as much as Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former academic who selected Hamid Karzai and Nuri al-Maliki as suitable leaders for their respective countries.

Initially promoted up the ranks of the national-security clerisy by Albert Wohlstetter, the dark eminence of neoconservative theology who also mentored neocon godfather Richard Perle, Khalilzad found a useful niche in such company as the only Muslim any of them knew, ready to spout their militarist nostrums at the flutter of a grant check. I myself got an early intimation of Khalilzad’s tenuous grasp on military reality in 1981, when he assured me in all seriousness that the Afghan mujahideen were enjoying great success in disabling Soviet tanks by thrusting thick carpets into their treads. During the administration of the elder Bush, he worked in the Pentagon under Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. In 1992 he wrote the initial draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, which became an iconic neoconservative text.

Khalilzad’s leap out of relative obscurity came with the post-9/11 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, an Afghan Loya Jirga assembly indicated by a clear majority that they wanted their aged king, Zahir Shah, to return from his long exile in Rome to preside over the government. This was not to the taste of presidential special envoy, and later ambassador, Khalilzad, who importuned Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi to prevent the Shah from leaving Rome as he meanwhile brusquely informed the Loya Jirga that their leader was to be Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun of modest reputation.

Afghan politicians of all stripes concluded that Khalilzad had purposefully picked someone with little internal support in order to ensure that his own authority remained unchallenged. This authority he exercised by operating as supreme warlord, rewarding or threatening the lesser strongmen who had emerged in various provincial power bases with grants of aid or threats of airstrikes from the bombers and Predator drones at his command.

Afghans who could foresee the inevitable consequence of this laissez-faire policy toward the universally hated warlords did their best to persuade Khalilzad to change course. One of them later related to me that he suggested that Khalilzad put “ten of them in handcuffs and ship them off to the International Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity.”

“I’m going to bring them in and demobilize them,” countered Khalilzad confidently.

“No, Zal,” replied the Afghan sadly, “you’re going to legitimize them.”

So it transpired. While Karzai presided, in his self-designed costume of furry hat and cape, over a regime of staggering corruption, large swaths of Afghanistan fell under the control of characters like Hazrat Ali, a ruffian of pliable loyalties who used American support to gain control of the eastern city of Jalalabad and installed himself, with Khalilzad’s approval, as security chief of Nangahar Province. He then began vying with fellow warlord Sher Mohammed Akhunzada for the title of world’s leading heroin trafficker (a practice both men denied engaging in) while delivering hapless victims labeled “high value targets” to the torture cells of Bagram or the oubliette of Guantánamo. In inevitable consequence, disgusted Afghans rallied to a resurgent Taliban. The rest is history.

Resolutely failing upward, Khalilzad became the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2005. His signal accomplishment came in 2006, when, searching for a suitable candidate to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, he summoned Nuri al-Maliki, a relatively low-ranking Dawa Party functionary who had spent much of his adult life in exile in Damascus (with an intervening spell in Tehran), where he subsisted on the earnings of a butcher shop he’d opened. Maliki’s party activities were largely related to security, and his experiences imbued him with a generally paranoid attitude to the outside world — not the best preparation for reconciling Iraq’s disparate sects and factions.

Nevertheless, Khalilzad thought Maliki was just the man to make piece with the Sunnis, crack down on Moqtada al-Sadr (whom the American government mistakenly believed to be an Iranian pawn), and stand up to the Iranians. Summoned by Khalilzad, Maliki was abruptly informed that he was to become prime minister. “Are you serious?” said the astonished erstwhile butcher. The British ambassador, William Patey, had been invited to attend the meeting but when he started to object to Maliki’s anointment, Khalilzad promptly kicked him out of the room.

True to form, all of Khalilzad’s presumptions about Maliki turned out to be wholly in error. So far from reconciling with Sunnis, Maliki went out of his way to alienate them, combining paranoia about the possibility of a neo-Baathist coup with an opportunistic calculation that heightened sectarian tension would bolster his support among Shia. He showed no sign of serving as the wished-for bulwark against Tehran, and, most importantly, evinced little interest in building a responsible administration. Instead, Iraqi government, never a model of probity, devolved into a midden of corruption in which every office, including those in the military, was for sale. By 2014, the going price for command of an Iraqi army division was reported to be around $1 million, payable over two years as the purchaser recouped his investment via fees levied at roadblocks and other revenue streams. Little wonder that when called on to fight the disciplined and ruthless ISIS, the Iraqi army has melted away.

Meanwhile, Khalilzad’s other choice, Hamid Karzai, has overseen a reign of pillage similar in scale to Maliki’s, opening the way for a Taliban restoration and rendering futile the entire American investment in Afghanistan. Defeat is an orphan, they say, but it would be a shame if this particular parent of America’s twenty-first-century humiliations were to be totally forgotten.

Share
Single Page
(@andrewmcockburn) is Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

Letter from Washington September 10, 2017, 9:00 am

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

From the July 2017 issue

It’s My Party

The Democrats struggle to rise from the ashes

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that a gynecologist in Italy refuses to perform abortions for religious reasons:

7 in 10

A newly discovered microsnail can easily pass through the eye of a needle.

Moore’s wife published a letter of support signed by more than 50 pastors, and four of those pastors said they either had never seen the letter or had seen it before Moore was accused of sexual assault and asked to have their names removed.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today